The rise of talent development
Talent shows have been around since time immemorial, but the concept of talent development— the notion of the importance of financial support and investment to talent — is relatively new. Since the rise of the information society and knowledge economy in the 1970s, the notion of ‘lifelong learning’ has become ever more important. Knowledge has become an asset. Refresher courses, skill development and flexibility are no longer optional, and passion is essential. In the past few decades, talent management has become an important element in companies’ efforts to maximise their competitiveness, nurture new leaders or bring about personal growth. Sometimes, talent management is aimed at the company as a whole, but it is more likely to focus on young, high-potential employees who either are already delivering good performances or have shown themselves to be promising.
It was Minister for Education, Culture and Science Ronald Plasterk’s policy document on culture, ‘The Art of Life’ (2007), that first stressed the importance of investing in talent, as so much talent was left ‘unexploited’. Plasterk called in particular for more opportunities to be given to ‘outstanding highly talented creatives’, mainly so that the Netherlands could remain an international player. Since then, ‘talent development’ has become a fixture in cultural policy. State secretary Halbe Zijlstra also acknowledged the importance of talent in ‘More than Quality’ (2012), but he gave a different reason: ‘As in science, it is important in culture to create space for new ideas and innovation that are not being produced by the market because the activities in question are not directly profitable.’ This enabled the support for talent to be easily justified from Zijlstra’s notoriously utilitarian perspective with its focus on returns, even after the economic crisis. Current Minister for Education, Culture and Science Jet Bussemaker also retained the emphasis on talent development, and talent is set to remain on the agenda in the years ahead.
Talent development at the Creative Industries Fund NL
The Creative Industries Fund NL first gave grants to a group of talented creatives in 2013. As in the Mondrian Fund’s talent development programme, the policy plan for 2013–2016 opted for a single, joint selection round each year. While the emphasis was on individual projects, it was noted that a joint assessment would be more objective and professional and that this would facilitate the accompanying publicity.
Who is considered a possible talented creative? To be eligible for a grant, you have to satisfy a number of specific requirements: you have to be registered with the Chamber of Commerce, have completed a design degree less than four years ago and be able to write a good application that persuades the nine committee members from the sector that you have talent. Based on the application, they decide how much potential, or promise, they see in your development, taking into account the timing of the grant for your career. While there are many nuances in the application process, these factors make sure the concept of ‘talent’ is clearly defined.
If you get through the tough selection process — on average ten to fifteen per cent of the applications result in a grant — you enjoy the huge luxury of being able to determine your own agenda for an entire year, of being able to act instead of react. It seems as if you have been given a safe haven, a short break from your precarious livelihood. But can it actually end up reinforcing the system of insecurity? What should be a time for seizing opportunities may also lead to self-exploitation, stress and paralysis. In practice, the creative process is very haphazard. Will the talented creatives be able to live up to their promise?
One of them went on a trip to China, another was able to do a residency in Austria, while yet another gave up their part-time job. Many have carried out research in a variety of forms, from field studies and experiments with materials to writing essays. Some built prototypes or were finally able to buy Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.Others organised meetings, factory visits, encounters, interviews and even a ball.
Does talent have a common denominator?
Is there a common denominator among the talented creatives who were selected? As in previous years, this year the group was selected specifically to ensure balance and diversity — encompassing a sound artist, a filmmaker, a design thinker, a researcher, a cartographer, a storyteller, a former architect and a gender activist-cum-fashion designer. Given the diversity of such a group, a joint presentation may feel forced. But presenting them to the outside world as a group enhances the visibility of these talented people, and this is important, because how else can the investment be vindicated?
These are the questions that the Creative Industries Fund NL has been debating ever since the first cohort: how to present this group without the presentation turning into a vulgar, unsubtle spectacle or propagating a romantic notion of talent, and at the same time, how to show the outside world what is being done with public money.And what would benefit the talented individuals themselves? In the past few years, various approaches have been tested as ways of reflecting on the previous year, from various curated exhibitions with publications and presentations to podcasts, texts, websites, workshops and debates.
The Creative Industries Fund NL operates as a buffer between neoliberal policy and the reality of creativity. The fund provides a haven for not-yet-knowing, exploration, making, experimentation and failure, without setting too many requirements. It is a balancing exercise: how do you tone down the harsh language of policy and keep at bay those who focus only on returns on investment, while still measuring and showing the need for this funding, and thereby safeguarding it?
Talent Platform provides insight in the designer’s creative process
Following input from the talented creatives themselves, a different approach has been chosen this year: there will be no exhibition. Most do not see Dutch Design Week as the right place for them; only one or two are interested in presenting a ‘finished’ design or project at all, and they do not necessarily wish to do so during Dutch Design Week. What is more, many of the talented individuals have used the grant for research and creating opportunities. Therefore, instead of a joint exhibition, the decision has been made to organise a gathering and to publish profile texts and video portraits on ‘Platform Talent’, an online database. This will put less emphasis on the work of the previous year and more on the visibility of the maker and the process they are going through, marking a shift away from concrete or applied results and towards their personal working methods. Will this form of publicity satisfy the general public’s appetite and curiosity and will it meet politicians’ desire for results? Has it perhaps become more important to announce that there is talent and not what that talent is? Or is this a way of avoiding quantification and relieving the pressure?
Perhaps what unites the talented creatives most is the fact that, although they have been recognised as ‘high performers’, they are all still searching for sustainable ways of working creatively within a precarious, competitive ecosystem that is all about seizing opportunities, remaining optimistic and being permanently available. So far, there is little room for failure or vulnerability, or to discuss the capriciousness of the creative process. The quest for talent is still a show, a hunt, a competition or battle.